Fatal ambulance crash prompts North Las Vegas fire union officials to question budget cuts

After two North Las Vegas firefighters were injured in an ambulance accident Tuesday while transporting a patient, firefighters union officials are further questioning the city's cost-cutting plan that shuts down stations and equipment based on staff availability.

It's known as a "brownout," a practice of not staffing when a vacancy, such as a vacation or sick leave, occurs in the city's Fire Department. City officials enacted the measure July 1.

Jeff Hurley, firefighters union president, said six of the city's eight rescue units were out of service the day of the accident. He said the city's units are designed differently than MedicWest's ambulances and could have prevented injuries, though he acknowledged he can't say that with certainty.

"I have two firefighters in the back of a private ambulance who were injured because that ambulance was on its side," Hurley said. "And they couldn't be on one of our rescues because the budget cuts shut them all down."

Mike Gorman, general manager for MedicWest, said the accident was "an anomaly" for his agency, which responds to 250,000 calls a year valleywide.

The issue has the company pressing for access to Opticom technology, which gives drivers the ability to change lights at intersections, a resource already used by the Fire Department.

Capt. Cedric Williams, Fire Department spokesman, would not comment about the "brownout" practice and said the accident is still under investigation.

North Las Vegas City Manager Tim Hacker did not return calls for comment.

The accident is a contentious issue for city, union and private ambulance officials for many reasons:

■ The 63-year-old patient, Dorothy Anita Gray, died at the hospital, but it was unclear whether her death was a result of the accident or her prior medical condition. Police said they think the woman died from her condition. The woman's daughter told media outlets she thinks her mother died in the accident because hospital staff told her Gray died of severe head trauma.

■ MedicWest responders are becoming part of a new North Las Vegas fire service plan that will have them responding alone to less serious emergency calls, such as stomach pains and broken bones. The city will not send a firetruck to those calls. Clark County and Las Vegas will not respond to calls North Las Vegas delegates to the private company. That part of the plan is not being implemented yet. Privatization has long been an issue between union and city officials. Of the 30,000 calls the Fire Department responds to annually, about 25,000 are medical.

■ As workers take vacations or medical leave, that determines when certain stations are open and what kind of equipment can be used under the "brownout" practice. Hurley said city rescue units are larger, heavier and have more seats and harnesses than a private ambulance, a claim city and MedicWest officials are keeping quiet about.

"We have no control over the private ambulance company," Hurley said. "We don't know their driver training. We don't know the maintenance of those vehicles. I know our training and our vehicle maintenance. This is about the cuts we didn't fathom. We've been worried about response times and covering areas of the city, and now we're getting into areas nobody really thought about."

Gorman said he could not speak to specific claims made by the union, but he said that his agency's rigs are "constantly checked by mechanics" and that driver training is the same as the Fire Department's. "They're extremely safe," he said.

Review-Journal reporter Mike Blasky contributed to this report.